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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Queensland out to defy State of Origin expectations against heavily favoured NSW | State of Origin

State of Origin is so often about Queensland but more so than anytime in recent series this year is all about the Maroons. It is about Billy Slater and a raft of debutants. It is even about the Blues diverging from recent style to react to Queensland’s team selections.

Not since Paul Vautin have Queensland handed the reins to a coach without any experience at a senior level. That masterstroke in 1995 led to arguably the most iconic series win in the 42-year history of Origin. This time around Maroons fans are frothing at the prospect of a similarly memorable victory.

Slater and Vautin could hardly be more different: Slater, the skilful speedster who set the league alight with blistering pace and supreme vision that led to some of the most spectacular moments the game has seen; and Vautin, the rambunctious redhead as renowned for his workrate on the paddock as he was for playing the clown off it. Their key similarity, though, is what is exciting the Queensland faithful – the undying respect gained from achievement in a golden era of Queensland rugby league.

When Vautin took the reins of a young and inexperienced side missing many regulars thanks to the sanctions of the Super League war, he was widely regarded as one of the greatest warriors to have donned a maroon jersey. What he lacked in technical coaching expertise, he made up for in raw passion and an ability to unite a ragtag group.

The circumstances are different this year, but Slater will be relying on a similar ethos. After the Paul Green experiment that sought technical expertise rather than follow-me leadership, the Maroons powerbrokers are expecting Slater to inspire and unite as much as attempt to technically break down or outsmart New South Wales.

There certainly won’t be a Queenslander in the squad who did not watch and admire Slater in Queensland colours. He was the most popular player of his generation and arguably one of the best four or five Queensland players of all time. He played with as much courage and toughness as he did flair and smarts. The decision to name him coach has seemingly been the tourniquet on what has been a decline in fortunes over the last few seasons.

Head coach Brad Fittler looks on during a Blues’ training session on Monday.
Head coach Brad Fittler looks on during a Blues’ training session on Monday. Photograph: Matt King/Getty Images

Decline, of course, was inevitable following the retirements of the golden generation that included Slater. What has caused the most angst north of the Tweed though has been the drift away from the Queenslander way, particularly last season, where the jersey did not lift a team inferior on paper as it has so often in the past and the state pride so often held aloft as a uniting force was strangely absent.

The hiring of Slater is, if not an inspired choice, very much a Queensland choice. And before a ball has been kicked he is already making his mark. He has shown no qualms in bringing in debutants including Selwyn Cobbo and Reuben Cotter in what is essentially their first season as full-time starters. He has also not forgotten past needs, surprisingly naming Ben Hunt at hooker and noting the Dragons utility has won the Ron McAuliffe medal the last two seasons.

Such has been the threat posed by Slater to NSW that, for the first time in the Brad Fittler era, the Blues have made some seemingly reactionary selection decisions. Fittler has often been credited as being a leader who has marched to the beat of his own drum. Due to this – and the abundance of talent he has had at his disposal – he has avoided the tropes that have so often ruined the Blues’ chances. He has gone all in on worrying about winger height, dropping second all-time leading tryscorer Josh Addo-Carr for Daniel Tupou. Dropping regulars Jake Trbojevic and Angus Crichton were surprising selection calls. Naming centre Stephen Crichton on the bench was baffling.

Time, of course, will tell if Fittler has played the right cards. The Blues enter the series heavily favoured. They have won three of the last four series and boast the confidence of having dominated Queensland in the two live games last season. Nathan Cleary is the premier playmaker in the game. James Tedesco and Damien Cook are Australia’s current fullback and hooker. There is little doubt the Blues hold a talent advantage yet again.

That talent disparity is narrowing though and the spectre of Slater looms large – an impressive feat for someone who has yet to coach a game of senior football. The Blues, on face value, look spooked and Queensland appear primed to return to what they have historically done best: lift on the biggest of stages and defy all expectation.

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